How To Fight With Your Mate

The Calgary Herald (Alberta)
Final Edition Section: Real Life; Pg. F1
November 22, 2004 Monday

How to fight with your mate: Five common couple quarrels and why you need to have them
by Gayle Forman, For The Calgary Herald

Witness, if you will, a script of pretty much every fight that my husband Nick and I engaged in during the first eight years of our relationship:

Me: “You never do the dishes/clean the cat litter/remember we’re out of toilet paper/go to parties with me.”
Him: Silence.
Me: “It really bothers me that I have to do everything around here myself. I might as well be alone in this relationship.”
Him: More silence.
Me, yelling now: “You’re such a jerk. You don’t care about me at all or you would do the dishes/clean the cat pan/buy toilet paper/go to parties with me.”
Him: More silence, accompanied by aggressive stare.
Me: “&*#$+&* you!”Oy! I can count a dozen things that we both did wrong in this skirmish, but at least we did one thing right — we fought.

“I worry about couples who don’t fight,” says marriage counsellor Sharyn Wolf, author of How to Stay Lovers for Life: Discover a Marriage Counselor’s Tricks of the Trade. “It’s not possible for two people to live together over a lifetime and not have some major differences.”

In fact, John Gottman, PhD, author of several books, including The Relationship Cure: A 5-Step Guide for Building Better Connections with Family, Friends, and Lovers, has studied quarreling couples for more than 30 years at the Gottman Institute, which he co-directs along with his wife Julie Schwartz Gottman, PhD.His research has found that it’s not fighting (or the lack thereof) that predicts the health of a relationship; it’s how squabbles are preformed and how they are resolved. Alas, learning to fight fair — by listening, by being empathetic, by understanding the underlying issues buried in most arguments — is not a skill that many of us are ever taught.

So, allow other people’s blowouts to be your guide. Read on for the five most common spats (bet you recognize most of them) and for some surprisingly sensible advice on how to have them and to resolve them.

1. The Chore Wars
The Fight: “Before we had our son, Erik and I shared the household cleaning,” says Portland, Oregon-based ER doctor Jennifer Larson, 33. “But now I work all day while Erik stays home with Dylan. When I’m off, I’d much rather spend my time with my babe, so I don’t really do my share anymore. Sometimes I get mad that Erik doesn’t pick up my slack since he stays at home.”

What It’s Really About: Justice.Why You Should Have It: “The home is the centre of family life and maintenance of the home is an ongoing issue,” says Wolf.”How people divide up the work or keep their commitments is just as important when it comes to dusting as it is when it comes to sex or money.” If one person feels the chore balance is out of whack, it breeds bitterness that can sour the relationship.

How to Resolve It: Put a piece of paper on the fridge and, over the course of a week, write down all the tasks that need to get done. Then, divvy up a realistic and fair cleaning system (even if it means letting the fridge get a little dirty). Alternatively, if you can afford it, stop arguing about who’s in the right and hire a maid.

2. The You’ve-Lost-That-Loving-Feelin’

The Fight: “When my husband and I haven’t had sex in more than a month, I’ll put the moves on him. Inevitably, he won’t be in the mood. I’ll question why and suddenly, emotions get riled and he’ll turn it on me, calling me sexually obsessed,” says Zoe, a 34-year-old sales manager from Los Angeles (who asked us not to use her real name).

What It’s Really About: ResentmentWhy You Should Have It: Fights about sex are rarely about sex, says sexologist Ava Cadell, PhD, author of 12 Steps to Everlasting Love. “I guarantee Zoe did something to piss her husband off or hurt him in some way,” she says. As a result of these wounded feelings, Zoe’s husband’s libido has taken a nosedive. So, if you look at sex fights as a warning bell that something’s off in your emotional relationship, you can take steps to heal the hurt and improve things, both in the bedroom and out, Cadell says.

How to Resolve It: Harping about the dearth of between-the-sheets action won’t help matters any. Figuring out the root cause of the pain will. Say something like, “I feel unloved and rejected by you and want to know how I can make what’s wrong right.”

3. The Family Feud

The Fight: “I have seven sisters and four brothers, which means that I get a lot of phone calls, especially on the weekends when the phone rings off the hook. This causes a lot of tension with my boyfriend John. He doesn’t understand why I have to talk to my siblings so much, or why I’ll talk to one sister when she upset me before,” says Ellen Grady, a 30-year-old teacher from Seattle.

What It’s Really About: CompetitionWhy You Should Have It: If someone is acting jealous or competing for your time, it’s usually a sign that he’s feeling neglected, says Wolf, and if that goes on for long, it will fester and get worse.

How to Resolve It: Be nice, not bitchy. Ask what bothers him about the phone calls — is it frequency, length, timing? — and come up with some boundaries for your couple time versus family time (or work time or friend time). For instance, agree to talk only at certain times, or not to take calls during meals.

4. The Decoy Battle

The Fight: “Taking out trash is my husband’s one job, but after he empties all the cans, he stores the trash in big green bags in the kitchen, where they smell. We argue about that a lot, but often, I get so upset that it becomes clear that we are really fighting about something else, usually family stress and mother-in-law problems,” says mother of five Lora Weyens, 36, from New Orleans.

What It’s Really About: Anything –except the issue you’re fighting about.Why You Should Have It: If you can muster some self-awareness, these little blowouts can help you get to the real lingering problems that are truly upsetting you. The trick is being able to recognize what you’re really battling about because as Lora realized, it ain’t garbage.

How to Resolve It: An intense skirmish over an inconsequential issue signifies a decoy fight, says Wolf. If you can, stop yourself in the middle of your burnt-toast tirade and say, “Hey, you know, this isn’t what I’m really steamed about,” even if you can’t yet articulate the underlying problem. To get to the heart of the matter, Wolf says, “forget the issue you’re fighting about and talk about what you’re feeling.”

5. The Time Tug of War

The Fight: “In order to keep our daughter from going to day care fulltime, my husband and I devised a schedule in shifts so that one of is always with her while the other is working. We’re completely booked 24 hours a day and both exhausted. We have no time to pay bills or clean house, let alone be together. So we get into these one-downsmanship fights, where we compete about who’s more miserable. It’s awful,” says 35-year-old documentary filmmaker Gillian Aldrich from New York City.

What It’s Really About: NeglectWhy You Should Have It: Because it might save your marriage. “If a marriage becomes so child-centred, it erodes the relationship,” says Gottman. “Couples have to nurture each other,” and such fights are a wakeup call that that’s not happening.

How to Resolve it: Trade the competition and defensiveness for empathy, says Gottman. When one complains, the other should cluck in sympathy. Then, adds Cadell, “Ask ‘what can we do to find some time in our schedule to be together?’ Make it a team effort.” End the fight with a specific appointment to be alone together.


So, can these lessons actually work?

You bet. Even Nick and I have improved our strategies.
For instance, I don’t yell as much and Nick doesn’t do that passive-stare thing or hold his epic grudges.I’m also getting better at understanding that many battles I start are either not about him (ever notice how the quarrel quotient rises when work’s not going well?) or else not worth fighting.

As a result, we have managed to break out of our pattern of endless irresolvable clashes and actually fight less.Who knew the key to peace was a more skilled war?

Fight FairlyDon’t do any of these things while you’re fighting. You’ll only make it worse.

1. Contempt is a relationship killer, so even in battle, no name calling and no sarcasm.2. No “kitchen sink” fights where you throw in everything that’s ever gone wrong.3. Don’t say, “You’re just like your mother.”4. Drop “always” and “never” from your fight vocab.5. Don’t answer your partner’s complaints with a “Yes, but.” Defensiveness gets you nowhere.6. If you’re getting too riled, it’s OK to call a time out, but don’t storm out in a huff.7. Never say, “I hate you” or “I want a divorce” in the heat of battle. These are strong, hurtful sentiments that do lasting damage and should not be used as fight weapons.